How Female Migration Changed the Population of Prehistoric Orkney

Genomic analysis of Bronze Age remains in the Links of Noltland finds local, related men, and migrant women from the continent

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Neolithic house eroding from dunes at Links of Noltland
Neolithic house eroding from dunes at Links of NoltlandCredit: EASE Archaeology
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Today’s Britons and Irish are mostly not descended from the aboriginal hunter-gatherers who occupied the islands as the Ice Age waned, 11,000 years ago, but from later migrants to the continent. Now, in contrast to previous thinking, it turns out that the same happened at the extreme north of this sphere: The Links of Noltland on the island of Westray, in the Orkney archipelago off north eastern Scotland. The Noltlander population in the Bronze Age had changed compared with the earlier Notlander population in the Neolithic.

In the early Bronze Age, there was a long, gradual influx of newcomers into Orkney. This was not just a migration event. This was a female migration event resulting in substantial population replacement, Hazel Moore and Graeme Wilson of EASE Archaeology in Orkney and colleagues report in the journal of Antiquity.

The upshot is that the original Neolithic population of Orkney was replaced. In effect, the population may have looked the same but their ancestry had changed, Wilson explains.

Misanthropes? Not so fast

In Orkney, the Neolithic is defined as around 5,600 to 4,500 years ago. The Bronze Age then runs from about 4,500 to 2,800 years ago (In contrast to the Levant, there is no sign of a Chalcolithic copper period).

Scotland and the Orkney archipelago are famed for their wealth of Neolithic ruins and cultic structures, as well as Iron Age forts – but less is known about the Bronze Age.

The new analysis of the Bronze Age settlement and cemetery at the Links of Noltland belie the theory that after flourishing in the Neolithic and building great monuments, the Orcadians turned insular. Orkney was postulated to have become “blighted” by the diminishment of its Neolithic prestige and to have rejected advances taking place elsewhere in Britain during the Bronze Age.

Burial of adult female aged 19-20 years of continental ancestry at the Links of Noltland.Credit: EASE Archaeology

Specifically Orcadians were suspected to have rejected Beaker-period advances in metallurgy and pottery, and immigration to this remote northern zone was not thought to have been significant.

Au contraire, Moore and Wilson argue. There was no blight, they did not turn into misanthropes. They developed and flourished. Their paper is based on the excavation of 35 buildings from the Bronze Age, which had been well preserved as they were deeply buried in sand. Sadly, any further work done there must be done speedily because the land is eroding fast, the two add.

Cremating the dead

As the Neolithic gradually transited to the Bronze Age, life changed in Orkney. At first the people lived in nucleated villages consisting of clustered households (an extreme example of which is Turkey’s Catalhoyuk), to a more dispersed form with fields between the homesteads.

The famed Neolithic Scottish village of Skara Brae is an example of a nucleated lifestyle. In fact housing construction in Links of Noltland was similar in style: curvilinear low-walled buildings made of stone and earth.

The Noltland settlement also featured communal buildings, including a subterranean complex, and buildings used to dry crops for processing and storage, the authors write. In the second millennium B.C.E., the sandy dunes expanded, encroaching on the settlement, the authors found. They also found that the locals adapted their sustenance methods; sheep came to supplant cows and local deer and the pottery style changed from "Grooved ware" to flat rimmed, undecorated pots, for example.

Crucial to the new study, the Bronze Age peoples buried their dead in a new cemetery between their households, though some continued to utilize the older Neolithic tombs, if not in the same way. Noting the erosion, the paucity of bodies, and absence of human remains found elsewhere in the vicinity, the archaeologists suspect that many graves have eroded away; also, some of the dead were buried in the Neolithic tombs, at least in the Early Bronze Age.

Pair of eroding Bronze Age houses under excavation at Links of NoltlandCredit: EASE Archaeology

The cemetery was centered on an enclosure with a few graves surrounded by a ditch. The majority of the dead, of both sexes and all ages, lay in three groups beyond the ditch.

Come the Bronze Age, burial customs became more diverse – some bodies were cremated and some buried intact, Wilson explains. The archaeologists speculate that the different households comprising the settlement had their own interment traditions.

Burned bones were placed in pits, not pottery urns. Perhaps the ash had been placed in something that didn’t survive, like a leather bag, he speculates.

In the cemetery, cremated bodies were buried in one place, the interred ones in two others. One cist contained 22 burials: It seems the grave was periodically reopened for new corpses.

Few were buried with grave goods – mainly low-fired pottery, rocks and shells. The ones who were seem to have been children – and women.

Men stay put

Which leads us to the punchline. Of the bodies, 23 underwent genetic sequencing (or 22, if two samples derived from the same baby, which seems to be the case), the authors explain. They for sure had 9 females and 11 males; the sex of two individuals could not be determined. Seeking the degree of kinship across the cemetery, the archaeologists found only one direct relationship, brother and sister.

The key point is that eight of the nine males were of a single male lineage that originated in the Neolithic Orkney population a thousand years earlier; yet the Links of Noltland population as a whole was akin to Northern European people in the Bronze Age. The Noltland people of the Bronze Age were not the same as the original Neolithic populations (from whom the men were descended).

The implication is that in northern Scotland, the men stayed put from the Neolithic onward and they married women coming from elsewhere. Marriage was patrilineal with house and rights passing through the male line. The incomers to Orkney were mainly women hailing, apparently, from the Scottish mainland, who were – by that time – not of aboriginal, but of continental descent, Wilson explains.

The women would not have come from the continent directly, but would have had continental ancestry, Wilson helpfully clarifies.

Burial of adult female aged 19-20 years of continental ancestryCredit: EASE Archaeology

When male-line-inheritance began in Orkney, we do not know. It could have begun in the Neolithic, after which the men stayed put. But clearly, in the Bronze Age, Orkney gained new blood – even though, the team clarifies, no material evidence was found in the form of exotic wares they might have brought. Didn’t the women bring anything with them? They did.

These ladies were coming to a long-lived community with roots in the Neolithic, continuously settled since at least the mid-fourth millennium B.C.E. The land was studded with Neolithic monuments. No such monuments were erected during the Bronze Age. The indigenous Neolithic male lineages were actively being maintained and one might expect conservatism – that the incomers would bow down before the wonder. Yet their arrival coincided with profound changes in the Noltland way of life: In farming and mortuary practices, to name but two. The women brought new customs and probably new language and culture as well.

Life remained hard: The bones tell the story, but there are no hallmarks of violence. The Bronze Age Links of Noltland seems to have been a peaceful small farming settlement. Come the Iron Age, we find monumental construction afresh. This time the constructions were less obviously religious and more defensive in nature. Somebody was not being peaceful.

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